Agricultural Mobilization

views updated May 23 2018

Agricultural Mobilization

In an April 1943 National Geographic Magazine article titled "Farmers Keep Them Eating," Frederick Simpich writes:

In the fields. That's where American farmers, including women, girls, and school children are fighting nowfighting frost, heat, dust, drought, mud, flood, and insect pests, growing our biggest crops in history.

Food is as much a munition as TNT. Farm tractors and milk wagons, like tanks and cannon, are war machines.

Farmers don't get killed and wounded on battlefields, get decorated with medals, or have to sleep in mud and snow. Yet without this 'soldier of the soil' all armies would soon have to quit, for it is still true that an army travels on its stomach.

During World War II (193945) the American farming community gained more from the wartime economy than any other segment of the U.S. population. The more acreage a farmer owned and cultivated, the more he profited. Prior to World War II American agriculture had suffered through twenty years of depressed farm prices. The decline began after World War I (191418), when the demand for U.S. farm produce worldwide decreased, and lasted through the 1920s, a period of prosperity for the rest of America. During the 1930s farmers were severely affected by the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Although World War II ultimately raised the income and social status of America's farmers, the early 1940s were still difficult. During that period about five million small farmers who were barely making a living left their farms and sought work in the newly expanding war industries.

Poverty-stricken tenant farmers (a farmer who rents farmland from another and often pays with part of his yield) and field laborers (blacks and whites alike) migrated from the rural South to the urban war industry centers. There they enjoyed higher incomes and a better standard of living (the level of comfort maintained in everyday life). The farm population in the South decreased 20.4 percent from 1940 to 1945. Those on marginal farming landsrocky New England, the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky, and the drought-ravaged Midwestjoined the migration. They ended up on both coasts, where giant aircraft factories and shipyards were in need of an ever-increasing number of workers. Ex-farmers also moved to the large industrial centers of the Great Lakes region. One and a half million joined the military.

Sharp rise in demand

By 1941, as Europe's agricultural production became increasingly disrupted by the war, the demand for U.S. agricultural products began to rise sharply. On March 11, 1941, the Lend-Lease Act became law. The act authorized President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345) to lend money and send weapons, equipment, and food to the Allies, the nations combating the so-called Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Under the Lend-Lease program, U.S. goods worth billions of dollars flowed to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. Suddenly the American agricultural industry had to scramble to keep up with the food demands of the Allied countries.

With the commencement of the Lend-Lease program and the formal entrance of the United States into the war in late 1941, American farmers were expected to produce enough food for U.S. civilians, the U.S. Army and Navy, and Allied civilians and military forces overseas. Just as U.S. industry had mobilized to produce war products, farmers had to mobilize for massive increases in food production. However, agricultural mobilization presented farmers with a set of challenges very different from those faced by industry leaders. Farmers dealt with living, growing commodities. Grain took a certain number of months to grow and mature; cattle and hogs took time to fatten up. Agricultural production had to proceed on nature's schedule, not the war's schedule.

Like the mobilization of industry for production of guns, warplanes, and ships, agricultural mobilization required immense effort and a complex set of strategies. Millions of acres of new fields had to be plowed and irrigated. Huge increases in the demand for fertilizers had to be met. Farm machinery had to be kept in excellent working condition, and new machinery

for new crops often had to be procured. Nearly 690,000 new tractors put two million horses and mules out of work. Greater numbers of cattle, hogs, and sheep meant grazing land had to be expanded; production of feed grains and corn had to increase, too. Transportation presented more challenges. To transport their goods to railroad shipping yards farmers needed trucks, gas, and tiresall items that were hard to obtain during wartime.

Despite the challenges, most farmers were caught up in the patriotic fervor of wartime and vowed to "keep them eating," a common catchphrase during the war. To meet production goals farmers worked from sunup to sundown every day, often calling on the entire family to help in the effort. For average, hardworking "dirt" farmers, as they liked to call themselves, 1942 was a very good year. Most were inclined to go on with this effort, as the Department of Agriculture requested, "for the duration," meaning at least until the war ended.

Farmers also had to grow many nonfood crops. Before the war approximately 600 million pounds of wool were used for clothing each year. In 1942 about one billion pounds were used for military uniforms, jackets, heavy fleece-lined coats, and pants. Hemp for cordage had previously been imported from such countries as the Philippines, but those imports were halted during the war. Therefore, U.S. farmers needed to produce 150,000 tons of hemp, which required the planting of 300,000 additional acres.

Wartime products

Certain products were emphasized to meet the demand of the military and home front. These included fats and oils, hogs, cattle, chickens, corn, wheat, and sugar.

Fats and Oils

Unlike Americans in the twenty-first century, the U.S. population in the 1940s had no concerns about eating too much fat. On the contrary, they ate large quantities of high-calorie fats and oils. High-fat foods such as bacon and pork were staples of the U.S. diet and favored by U.S. troops. In 1942 U.S. farmers produced twelve billion pounds of fats, but Lend-Lease exports quickly consumed these record amounts. There was real concern over shortages of fat. To prevent such shortages the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) demanded that farmers plant more acres of peanuts, soybeans, and flax, all to be used for oil production. The USDA also required farmers to raise more hogs for lard and pork. In 1942, four million acres of peanuts were harvested, twice as much as in 1941. Soybean production nearly doubled, from about six million acres to eleven million acres. Processed soybeans provided cooking fats, oils, and margarine. Milled into soy flour and added to cereal, they provided significant nutritional value. Because a large percentage of pork was shipped overseas, soy sausage, a new product, became a popular substitute. Noting the high nutritional value of soybeans, the Allies also ordered more and more soybean products through the Lend-Lease program.

Hogs were raised in record numbers in 1942 and fed record amounts of corn. These hogs provided both pork meat and lard. Lard was used extensively in cooking (for frying and baking) for civilians and troops. The Soviets spread it right on their bread, the way Americans would spread butter and jam. Tons of lard were sent overseas, and it was difficult for U.S. farmers to fill all orders.

Hogs, Cattle, and Chickens

Hogs were the finest fat makers known. In 1942 U.S. farmers raised approximately 105 million hogs, and even more hogs would be needed in 1943 and 1944. To increase the number of hogs, various agricultural scientists at the USDA Regional Swine Breeding Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, focused on cutting the infant mortality of young pigs.

Although a bit leaner than pork, beef also hit all-time production highs in 1942. The USDA asked for even larger amounts of beef for 1943

and 1944. Before the war, cattle were transferred into feeding pens to fatten for market for ninety to one hundred eighty days. By 1942 and 1943 the fattening period lasted only thirty to ninety days. Americans resigned themselves to less choice cuts of steak (cuts with less fat). Nutritionists suggested that, with less fat available, the war years would be an opportune time for Americans to lose weight, not a popular opinion among the public.

Dairy farmers were asked to produce more milk, cheese, and butter from their dairy cows. By the end of 1942, half of U.S. cheese production was being shipped overseas to Allied forces (including American soldiers) and civilians. For shipment, milk was generally dried and sent in boxes or evaporated and sent in cans. Up to 90 percent of dried milk, 40 percent of evaporated milk, and 20 percent of butter went overseas. Dairy farming was extremely labor-intensive. Dairy cows had to be milked twice a day, every day. Whole families plus hired hands worked the farms without days off. Some workers left for jobs in the war industries, gaining better pay and better hours; others joined the military. These departures caused a labor shortage in the dairy industry, making production goals even more difficult to reach.

By the early 1940s poultry farmers had introduced better breeding, feeding, and care of chickens. The average American hen laid 111 eggs a year, up from 86 in World War I (191418). Chickens had become such efficient egg producers that eggs never had to be rationed during the war.

Corn and Wheat

During World War II American farmers planted nine million more acres of corn than they had before the war. They produced three billion bushels (a bushel is 2.2 cubic meters of dry harvested corn or wheat) of corn in 1943. Europeans did not like corn very much, so little was sent through the Lend-Lease program. Most of the record corn crops were used on the home front. What the people didn't eat, U.S. hogs, cattle, and poultry did. Corn was also put to industrial uses, producing fuel and explosives.

Farmers planted two million extra acres of wheat to meet wartime demands. Flour, breads, macaroni, and spaghetti were produced from wheat. Europeans needed huge quantities of U.S. wheat products. Hundreds of thousands of flour sacks were shipped out. In late 1942 the United States had more than a billion bushels of wheat on hand. Grain storage facilities were full. Growers then stored the grain in old garages, abandoned farmhouses, and even airplane hangars. In addition to being ground into flour, wheat was

used like corn for feed and for production of industrial alcohol.

In Omaha, Nebraska, a new grain alcohol plant built by the Farm Crops Processing Corporation processed 20,000 bushels of wheat, corn, and barley each day and produced 17.5 million gallons of ethyl alcohol per year. The alcohol was used to manufacture synthetic rubber and explosives. (Rubber was a vital resource during wartime. However, natural rubber was unavailable because the United States had stopped importing it from Southeast Asia, a region that was controlled by Japan during the war.)


Americans in the 1940s, on average, ate 104 pounds of sugar a yearin cookies, cakes, candies, and ice cream, as well as in their coffee. Before the war the United States imported about 70 percent of its sugar from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines. The 15 percent that came from the Philippines was completely cut off by the war. (Similar to rubber, the United States had stopped importing sugar from Southeast Asia, a region that was controlled by Japan during the war.) Ships to transport sugar from Puerto Rico and Cuba were scarce. To strengthen domestic production of sugar, the U.S. government paid American beet and cane growers to plant 25 percent more land.

Processing and transporting foods

New problems arose with the increased production of foodsnotably, how to preserve this produce for shipment over long distances, and how to safely and economically get the produce to its destination.

Dehydration processing plants were a significant war industry. At the plants, heat was used to remove all water content from food items. Foods were dehydrated for two reasons: to prevent spoilage and to reduce the size of food items so that more could be packed into each shipment. Eggs, meat, vegetables, and fruits all underwent dehydration. Three dozen eggs, susceptible to spoiling and breakage in transit, would reduce to one pound of easily transportable egg powder. Scrambled eggs from dehydrated egg powder tasted almost exactly like scrambled eggs from whole fresh eggs. Through dehydration a 700-pound steer could be reduced to a relatively small portion of dried beef, about enough to fill a medium-size suitcase. Dehydrated vegetablesincluding beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbagecould be stored in boxes. They were favored over nondehydrated, canned vegetables, which took up more space and wasted tin, a scarce material during wartime.

Getting food products to market during the war was a challenge for U.S. farmers. Normally, trucks were used, but in 1942-43, trucks were in short supply. Gasoline and tires were tightly rationed. As a result railroads hauled twice as much food as they had before the war. In 1942 over four million railcars transported livestock and produce across the country. Rail stopping points were combined in central locations to make transportation more efficient. The U.S. government urged farmers to share their truck space with neighbors and completely fill each truck before driving to a rail stopping point to deliver their products. Railroads also carried goods that would have traveled by cargo ship during peacetime. Via railroads, these shipments evaded the enemy submarines that prowled the coastal waters. Railroad companies provided huge food storage facilities that were located up and down both coasts. There, goods ordered through the Lend-Lease program awaited ships that would carry them to China, Europe, and the Soviet Union.

What Is a Shipload of Food?

According to author Frederick Simpich in "Farmers Keep Them Eating," a National Geographic magazine article, the average U.S. freighter could carry the following amounts of goods:

  • 6,000 barrels of dried eggs, equal to a year's work for 229,137 hens.
  • 6,000 barrels of dried milk, a year's work for 2,783 cows.
  • 16,522 cases of evaporated milk, a year's work for 304 cows
  • 20,000 boxes of cheese, a year's work for
  • 14,500 big cans of pork, the meat from 5,021 hogs.
  • 16,800 boxes of lard, the fat of 27,632 hogs.
  • 6,061 sacks of flour, the wheat from 838 acres.
  • 26,111 cases of canned vegetables, equal to 40 acres of tomatoes, 100 acres of snap beans, and 102 acres of peas.

To fill this ship took the products from 3,824 average farms.

Farm bloc

During the war farming became a big business, called agribusiness, with increased political power in Washington, D.C. In 1943 the U.S. farm population was between 25 million and 27 million. Historically, most American farmers did not belong to organized labor groups (groups of workers in a particular industry who band together to seek better work conditions, or better prices for the goods they produce or crops they grow), and they did not belong, as a whole, to any large political organization. A small percentage of the farm population, about 600,000, belonged to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The members of this group were mostly big farm operators and packing companies. They were the center of the so-called farm bloc, which was highly influential in Washington, D.C., in shaping government policy toward the farming industry. Local farm bureau branches controlled county agricultural agents, who were in charge of implementing government policies. At times the goals of the national farm bloc were not the same as those of the local farm

organizations. For example, the average "dirt" farmer was pleased with wartime profits and eager to cooperate with the federal government's plans and requests, at least for the duration of the war. In contrast, the Farm Bureau Federation adamantly opposed government intervention in the business of farming because it reduced or controlled profits.

The farm bloc's overall goals were inexpensive labor, low operating costs, and increasing prices for bloc members' produce, all of which would bring higher profits. Members were especially dedicated to preserving cheap farm labor, even though this goal often hurt small farmers. For example, in late 1942 the Farm Security Administration (FSA) received authorization to move fifty thousand farmworkers from poor farming regions to areas in need of labor. The FSA also tried to establish a corps of several hundred seasonal workers. (Established during the Great Depression, the FSA was an agency designed to aid small farmers.) Fearing it might have to pay those workers higher wages, the Farm Bureau Federation effectively blocked both programs through congressional lobbying.

The farm bloc resisted any government price controls on farm products, even though such controls were designed to halt inflation, or a continuing rise in the price of goods. (Inflation would have eventually led to increased prices for farm equipment, as well as supplies and laborer wages, thus hurting the farmer, particularly small farmers.) Members also tried to block government attempts to influence farmers' choice of crops. For example, the government wanted farmers to switch from two nonessential crops, cotton and tobacco, to essential wartime crops such as soybeans and peanuts. One-fourth of U.S. farms were cotton and tobacco farms, and at least two years' supply of cotton and tobacco was available. It took only one-half acre of land and 6.5 man-hours of work to obtain the same amount of oil from soybeans as one and a third acres and 132 man-hours of work for cottonseed oil. The big farmers opposed the shift to soybeans for two reasons: They opposed any type of government intervention in their industry and they believed they would lose money by switching crops. Their machinery was already geared toward the traditional crops on large blocks of land and continuing with cotton and tobacco would still be more profitable, even if they were in less demand. They did not want small farmers to switch, because they might become more profitable and create more competition.

Farm labor shortage

By the end of 1942 farmers' major concern was the shortage of farmworkers. When the war began, many farmers' sons and hired farm-hands enlisted in the military or migrated to war industry jobs in urban areas. During the course of the war, six million left farms. A policy of military deferment (exemption from military service) for men who worked on farms began in November 1942 as the government tried to head off the farm labor crisis. By mid-1943 over a million farmers and farmworkers had been deferred by the military draft system known as selective service, and by the end of 1943 three million deferments were expected to be in effect. Nevertheless, approximately 75 percent of farmers expected labor shortages in 1943. Of those farming more than 100 acres, at least half believed the shortage would be severe enough to affect production.

After the robust agricultural production of 1942, several million people had migrated back into some farming areas, hoping to get in on the profits. However, workers filling in for the farmers were not available in many areas between 1941 and 1943. To ease the labor shortage and get the crops in at harvest, many farmers began to recruit women, students, Mexican workers, and even prisoners of war.

In 1941 several state government agencies also began recruiting nontraditional farmworkers. By 1942 a few states, including Oregon, Vermont, New York, and California, had the U.S. Employment Service, a temporary agency assisting industries in finding workers as labor shortages increased, actively recruiting women from urban areas for critically needed farm work. Oregon and Vermont set up model cooperative recruitment programs.

In Oregon, the Oregon State College Extension Service, an agency providing educational assistance on the latest farming methods, teamed up with the U.S. Employment Service to organize farm labor committees in every county. These committees worked to assess needs and get workers to the farmers. Civil defense organizations, churches, and local chambers of commerce all worked together to send their members as volunteers into the fields. Radio stations and newspapers publicized the patriotic call to aid American farmers. In the spring of 1942 Oregon's Department of Education offered agricultural classes to schoolchildren from fifth grade through high school. That fall Portland schools sent eleven

thousand youths into the field with their teachers. Likewise, women took their families into the fields. Journalists, office workers, and other professionals also headed out to harvest crops. By the end of the 1942 harvest season Oregon's entire vegetable and fruit crop had been saved, harvested on time by nontraditional workers and volunteers.

The same year in Vermont well-known journalist Dorothy Thompson (18941961) founded the Volunteer Land Corps (VLC). VLC recruited men over sixteen years old and women over eighteen. Many college students in the Northeast participated in the various organizations. Then, working in cooperation, the VLC, the U.S. Employment Service, and Vermont state agencies, including the extension service, placed the young recruits in farm jobs in both Vermont and New Hampshire. In Maine Katherine L. Potter, a home economist, established the Women's Emergency Farm Service. Eleanor Roosevelt (18841962), long a proponent for increased work opportunities for women in U.S. society, gave the

project her support. Her home state, New York, had a similar program, known as "Farm For Freedom." This program was run by a large private organization. Other programs included the "Volunteer Land Army" of Hunter College and New York City's "Land Army."

Women's groups often established their own drives to recruit female farmworkers. In California, where crop and harvest seasons ran year-round, these groups recruited as many women as they could find to work in the fields. One California group, American Women's Voluntary Services, organized the Agricultural Committee. Working with state and local government agencies, this committee recruited women over the age of eighteen for the 1942 crop harvest; many of them continued working on a year-round basis. Other women's groups that joined in the effort included the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. The Federation urged its members to spend their vacation time on the farms.

Congress established the Emergency Farm Labor Program in 1942, allowing thousands of Mexican workers to come to the United States and relieve the labor shortage in California and the Southwest. In May 1942 the United States and Mexico negotiated an agreement to bring the Mexican workers into the United States. The program was known as the Bracero program. (In Spanish, bracero means "day laborer" or "people who work with their arms.") The U.S. War Food Administration served as contractor for the Mexican workers, whose contract promised minimum wageeither subsistence payments or employment for 75 percent of their time in the United Statesas well as living expenses while traveling, and transportation to and from work sites. More than one hundred thousand Mexican workers came to the United States during the war years under the Bracero program. Despite the contract rules, these workers experienced substandard living conditions and working conditions. In reality the program enabled U.S. growers to contract for an unlimited supply of Mexican workers and pay them very low wages.

Farmers in the West and Southwest accepted any reliable source of labor to harvest crops, but farmers in the Midwestern and Southern states tended to prefer using their own families. They resisted hiring women laborers from outside the farm. By 1942, 50 percent of women in farm families were in the fields planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and caring for livestock.

Movement to a national farm labor program

From mid-1941 to 1943 the federal government debated whether a national farm labor program should be created. Many looked at the success of a few state programs and decided states could handle the farm labor shortage by themselves. Others, including Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard (18931967), were reluctant to use nontraditional labor and considered women not physically capable of relieving the farm labor shortage. However, during the same period farmers clearly demonstrated the ability to increase production and bring in the harvests with nontraditional labor. The idea of city women standing in as farm laborers gained a great deal of support from local government agencies, in agricultural publications, and in popular magazines such as McCall's, Time, Saturday Evening Post, and Country Gentleman. The Farm Journal in April 1942 urged farm women throughout the nation to be ready to train thousands of small town and city women. Likewise the National Federation's magazine Independent Woman urged the formation of a new woman's land army.

President Franklin Roosevelt declared January 12, 1943, as Farm Mobilization Day. In a statement that day he called food a "weapon in total war."

The U.S. government finally established a national farm labor program in early 1943. Several factors influenced Congress to act on this issue: In 1918, during World War I, fifteen thousand women from all across the United States had joined the Women's Land Army of America (WLAA) to aid farmers; during World War II, various states had employed women and youths for farm work, with successful results; women family members, especially in the Midwest and South, were already maintaining farms; and several international women's land army programs (including the British Land Girls and similar programs in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) had been successful in their efforts. Looking at the evidence, Congress saw that the United States could benefit from adopting similar programs nationwide.

Victory Gardens

During World War I (191418), when food was in short supply on the American home front, people planted vegetable gardens for their own personal use; these gardens were called "victory gardens." When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Americans needed no encouragement from the government to get started on their victory gardens. They began planting in the spring of 1942, and soon small garden plots were everywherebackyards, vacant lots, public parks, and even in front of city halls, schools, and prisons. By April 1942, six million gardens had been planted.

In 1943 twenty million victory gardens yielded eight million tons of produce. Once harvested, the vegetables had to be canned for preservation, a job that Americans took on in their own kitchens. The victory gardens produced more than one-third of all vegetables grown in the United States and provided 70 percent of the vegetables consumed by Americans on the home front. Victory gardens became a key symbol of the will of the American people on the home front to pitch in to win the war.

In February 1943 Congress passed Public Law 45, which established a national farmworker policy. The USDA put the Emergency Farm Labor Program, passed in 1942, under the jurisdiction of the agricultural extension service, an agency that provided educational services covering all aspects of farming. The national extension service cooperated with state and county extension services, so women and high school students across the nation could be utilized to relieve the farm labor crisis. The women's group was called the Women's Land Army (WLA), and the youth program was

known as the Victory Farm Volunteers (VFV).

Women's Land Army

The Women's Land Army (WLA) was officially launched in April 1943. Many farm and nonfarm women had worked as wartime farm laborers before that time, and then continued their work as part of the WLA through 1945. The WLA focused on cities to recruit thousands more. The women cultivated cropshoeing, weeding, thinningand harvested them. Some picked fruit from orchards, and others worked in canneries. They worked on sheep, poultry, and cattle farms. Women of all backgrounds and ages participated in WLA. Homemakers, college students and faculty, and working women on vacation time all worked in the fields. Pay was supposed to be at least 30 cents per hour or equivalent piecework rates (pay based on the amount harvested). Instead, rates were usually determined by locality and worker scarcity. Rates were higher in the West than in the East. Rates in the Pacific Northwest were 60 to 95 cents an hour, but in the Southeast they were only 20 cents an hour. The Southern and Midwestern states, which originally opposed the creation of WLA, ended up using several hundred thousand women farm laborers by the end of the war.

Heading the WLA was Florence L. Hall (18881952), an experienced home economist with the U.S. Extension Service who had grown up on a Michigan farm. She coordinated state and local supervisors overseeing the placement of thousands of women. At the end of WLA's first year of operation, forty-three states had full- or part-time supervisors. County supervisors assisted state supervisors in the larger programs. Supervisors recruited women, managed public relations, provided training, organized worker camps (in locations where commuting to the fields each day was not practical), and opened childcare centers. Nearby hotels, Girl Scout camps, and tourist cabins offered their rooms to the women farmworkers during harvest season. Farmers came to the camps each day to hire and transport workers. The camps were popular with women because they offered nutritious meals, group companionship, and recreation.

The Woman's Bureau of the USDA reported that, by 1945, 22.4 percent of all agricultural workers were women. That figure was up from 8 percent in 1940. Between mid-1943 and the end of 1945, 1.5 million women worked with WLA. An equal number found work on farms on their own. Although often overlooked in historical accounts of working women in World War II, these women enabled U.S. farmers to meet wartime production goals set by the federal government. They were the largest group of wartime farm laborers under the Emergency Farm Labor Program.

Victory Farm Volunteers

The second largest group in the Emergency Farm Labor Program was the Victory Farm Volunteers (VFV). By the end of 1945 two and a half million youths between the ages of eleven and seventeen participated in VFV. These young people cultivated and harvested crops just as WLA women did. Each young person had to pass a physical fitness test and have parental consent. Six-hour days were generally the limit.

Growers and youth leaders formed youth committees to organize plans in each county. In the spring, schools offered classes and training in agriculture to prepare students to work in the summer. Students would sign

up for VFV at their schools. Often WLA members oversaw the youth laborers in the fields. In the fall, in certain localities, schools closed during part of the day or for a short period when seasonal work, such as harvesting or planting, needed to be accomplished, so students could work in the fields

at harvest time. Workers were generally paid by the piece; for example, strawberry pickers were paid 42 cents per carrier full of strawberries. Generally workers could pick between fourteen and eighteen carriers in a six-hour day.

Foreign workers and prisoners of war

In addition to workers from Mexico, farm workers were also brought to the United States from the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Canada. In all, approximately 230,000 foreign workers came to the United States to relieve the farm labor shortage during World War II.

Approximately 265,000 prisoners of war (POWs) also helped relieve the farm labor shortage. In California, south of the San Francisco Bay area, Italian prisoners of war aided at harvest times. From 1944 to 1946 thirty-five hundred German and other prisoners of war from six POW camps in Oregon worked to harvest potatoes, onions, lettuce, and pears in that state.

Prosperity comes to American farms

Farmers experienced a peak of prosperity during the World War II years. Through the course of the war, the U.S. farm population fell by 17 percent. The remaining farmers prospered greatly. The number of farms decreased, but the size of farms increased. Major scientific and technological advances, such as commercial fertilizers, substantially improved crop yields. Increased mechanization helped make up for the loss of workers who were enlisting in the military or taking factory jobs in the war industry. Farmers invested in new and improved tractors, trucks, and combines (a machine for cutting and threshing grains; threshing means separating out the seeds) that improved farm productivity. The federal government made a significant contribution to farmers' prosperity. While tightly controlling the prices of many American products (including products used by farmers, such as tractors), the government allowed prices for farm products to rise freely throughout 1942. Therefore, farmers' incomes rose faster than their costs. According to the Office of War Information, between 1939 and 1942 farm prices on average rose 92 percent, but the cost of supplies and equipment rose only 25 percent. Farm income rose from $8.7 billion in 1939 to $16.1 billion in 1942. As their profits soared, farmers built new farm buildings and homes, erased their debts, and enjoyed higher social status in their local communities.

For More Information


Carpenter, Stephanie A. On the Farm Front: The Women's Land Army in World War II. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Lingeman, Richard R. Don't You Know There's a War On? New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1970.

Menefee, Selden. Assignment: U.S.A. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943.


Borah, Leo A. "Nebraska, the Cornhusker State." National Geographic Magazine (May 1945): p. 513.

Simpich, Frederick. "Farmers Keep Them Eating." National Geographic Magazine (April 1943): p. 435.

Web Sites

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (accessed on June 26, 2004).

Agricultural Revolution

views updated May 18 2018


agricultural improvements
political and cultural framework

Violent breaks with existing political and social structures are called revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 being the standard examples. The notion of revolutionary change—so central to nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theory—was extended to other radical breaks with the past. The best known is the Industrial Revolution: that huge increase in productive capacities that occurred from 1780 to 1850 with the invention of steam-powered machinery, the concentration of labor in factories, vast improvements in mining, and the introduction of railways and steamships. Unlike political revolution, the effects of which were swift and brutal, the Industrial Revolution was more drawn out (and some argue equally pernicious), although it, too, could be ascribed a beginning: the mechanization of spinning and weaving in the late eighteenth century being the favorite candidate.

This concept of radical break with the past was then applied to the agrarian sector because it was thought that only major social transformations could account for the spectacular rise in population and sizable increases in productivity witnessed in England (and in other parts of western Europe) between 1750 and 1850, breaking all previous ceilings. England, as the "cradle of the Industrial Revolution" was taken to be the site of this Agricultural Revolution. European historians presumed until quite recently that the blockages that the English had managed to overcome continued to stifle productivity on the Continent. The only other contender, the Netherlands with its advanced economy, had doubled its population between 1500 and 1650 but then stabilized at around 2 million, without industrializing. By 1650 England had regained its medieval peak of 5.5 million inhabitants (from 2.5 million in 1500), and then reached 8.6 million in 1800 and 16.6 million in 1850. France displayed similar patterns with its population rising from 21 million in 1700 to 28.5 million in 1800 and 36 million in 1850. Population booms had in the past been accompanied by rising food prices and growing dearth, ending in severe crises that decimated the population. By the turn of the nineteenth century such growth had become sustainable. Because increased imports could not account for this change, crop yields and labor productivity must have increased. The percentage of those employed in agriculture declined in England from 80 percent in 1500 to 40 percent in 1800 (a level reached in the Netherlands by the 1670s) and 24 percent by 1850, whereas in 1870, 50 percent still worked the land in France and Germany, 60 percent in Italy, and 65 percent in Sweden. Given the overall rise in population, the absolute number employed in agriculture actually grew, but their proportion dropped: it took far fewer hands to feed more people. The rate of urbanization is another good indicator because the countryside must produce surpluses to supply the towns. In 1600, 8.3 percent of the English lived in towns of more than five thousand inhabitants, 27.5 percent in 1800, and 40 percent by 1850. These are the changes that scholars have striven to explain. They have done this, for the most part, without census data or agricultural statistics (which were first gathered systematically in the nineteenth century), piecing together indirect evidence from parish

records, tax records, farm leases, estate accounts, probate records, tithes, tolls, market price lists, and agronomic literature. This accounts for their different assessments of and debates about the pace, breadth, and cause of change.

agricultural improvements

For despite attempts to link the Agricultural Revolution to technological innovations (such as Jethro Tull's seed drill of circa 1701 or Andrew Meikle's horse-drawn threshing machine of 1784) it soon became clear that neither new technology nor new sources of power could account for dramatic increases in the food supply. Revolutionary innovations such as mechanical threshers and reapers appeared only in the 1840s and 1850s (tractors would await the early 1900s) and would spread widely only in the late nineteenth or even mid-twentieth centuries. Chemical fertilizers were invented by the German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1845. This is not to say that there were no technological improvements at all, but that they were of a much simpler sort, such as using scythes rather than sickles to harvest cereals (scythes cut three times as fast but could be wielded only by men), increasing horsepower, improving drainage, improving iron plows, and sowing higher quality seeds. Altogether new crops were introduced such as maize and potatoes (which became especially popular on small landholdings), but the most significant additions to the early modern catalog were turnips and clovers because they restored nutrients to the ground. Farmers had known since the seventeenth century (from Dutch and Flemish examples) that turnips and clovers benefited the soil (without understanding their "nitrogen-fixing" properties), and they discovered that, in proper rotation, they allowed crops to grow continuously—a system known in England as the Norfolk four-course rotation (wheat-turnips-barley-clover). By 1700, only 20 percent of the arable land in England remained under fallow, a figure that fell to 4 percent by 1871. The introduction of turnips in the sixteenth century and then clover in the seventeenth seemed to offer another starting date for the Agricultural Revolution except that there is little evidence that they were commonly planted until the eighteenth century.

Growing crops year after year on the same soil exhausts its fertility. The late medieval solution, adopted throughout much of western Europe and England, was to divide a village's arable land into three large sections of open fields (with nothing more than a stone indicating where one peasant's plot ended and another's started) and to sow these fields, in rotation, with a winter cereal followed by a spring cereal followed by a third year of lying fallow so that the field could rest, renew its nutritional reserves, and rid itself of pests. Peasants scattered their holdings over the three parts of the arable (although they maintained vegetable gardens by their houses) to lessen risk, but this scattering became frowned upon in the eighteenth century as a waste of energy. Animals were herded on the fallow for their manure (and on the other two sections after the harvest). Livestock could also be kept in stalls and given fodder or fed on meadows, but the combination of open-field farming and pasturing was the most common. Because the fields were open, the entire village community had to sow and harvest the same crops at the same time. For a long time scholars believed that one of the blockages to innovation was the open-field system and that increases in productivity and yields could have come about only with the creation of fenced (or enclosed) individual farms and the institution of private property. Meadows, separate from the open fields, were usually fenced in or protected from trespass, and the enclosures that took place in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England were mainly of that sort. Arable land was taken over and turned into enclosed meadows as sheep's wool became more profitable than cereals, and fewer workers were needed to tend sheep than to grow crops—leading to Thomas More's famous condemnation in Utopia (1516) of "sheep eating men." The enclosures associated with the Agricultural Revolution took place later and were more likely to reverse the process, turning pastures into arable, as a new demand for cereals made this profitable and the more complex rotations described above provided sufficient fodder. The second wave of enclosures did not necessarily involve savings on labor. The redistribution of open fields and their division into compact enclosed farms could be done either with the consent of 80 percent of local landowners (or sometimes of the village population) or by petition to Parliament. The majority of enclosures, historians now conclude, took place in the seventeenth century when 24 percent of English farmland was enclosed, as opposed to 2 percent in the sixteenth century, 13 percent in the eighteenth, and 11 percent in the nineteenth. These enclosures were accompanied by a parallel, though separate, phenomenon of increasing farm size. By 1800 the average English farm was 60 hectares (150 acres) in southern England and 40 hectares (100 acres) in the north, as opposed to an average of 26 hectares (65 acres) in the early eighteenth century. Such engrossments also took place on the Continent following the demographic crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Landlords reconstituted their demesnes (having earlier sold or leased a large proportion in perpetuity to their peasants) and then leased them in single units to farmers, while, alongside, small peasant landholdings continued to splinter through inheritance. There was much variation here as well with sizable family farms more common in Germany and multifamily sharecropping in northern Italy.

Eighteenth-century agronomists held it as self-evident that large enclosed farms produced more efficiently because they responded better to market conditions and encouraged investments and improvements while lowering costs (including wages), hence raising yields, rents, and profits. The relationship between demand and prices was a complicated one: higher prices stimulated

greater cereal production at first, and an ever-increasing demand did so thereafter. Enclosure clearly raised rents—and this was its major appeal to landlords. Like their forebears, historians bolstered by modernization theories presumed that, technological innovations lacking, it was economies of scale and liberty of production that stimulated production in the eighteenth century (though some dated it back to the seventeenth). A new market economy was replacing traditional communal self-sufficiency.

All these suppositions have been overturned. Regional studies have demonstrated that agricultural improvements were perfectly compatible with the open-field system and took place as much on small as on large farms, even if, on the whole, large, consolidated holdings facilitated and encouraged innovations. Moreover, rather than presuming that the Agricultural Revolution had to precede the Industrial Revolution, be it by a decade or a century, evidence showed that it (or much of it) occurred alongside the Industrial Revolution with a real takeoff in the second half of the eighteenth century or even the first half of the nineteenth—although this remains a contentious issue. What is more, some regions of England advanced faster than others, discouraging sweeping generalizations. Despite disagreements over timing, English historians now concede that the Agricultural Revolution consisted of a series of small, incremental changes rather than sudden revolutionary transformations. Their England therefore resembles much more the "backward" Europe studied by their colleagues, long presumed to lag far behind. What is more, parts of Europe have been shown to experience similar rates of growth as advanced British regions. For example, large, consolidated farms in northern France, especially around Paris, responded to increased demand, improving techniques, reducing the fallow, introducing new crops—and raising yields. Similar improvements have been observed on the open fields and on small farms, although, here as in England, the pace of change varied from region to region. But highly commercialized English farms could no longer be contrasted to self-sufficient European villages. If piecemeal improvements explained population and productivity increases in England, the same could be shown for other areas, such as France, which managed to sustain growth of 30 percent over the eighteenth century.

political and cultural framework

Thus far, economic factors have taken front stage. Market forces were at work that stimulated a search for profit resulting in improvements (and some innovations) in husbandry and changes in landholding patterns (consolidation of farms, engrossment, and leaseholds). For a long time it was presumed that peasant communities steeped intraditional values and averse to innovations resisted these forces. Individualism and capitalism could therefore have invaded the countryside only from the outside. Dispelling these myths and showing that peasants objected neither to profit nor to the market did not explain what had stimulated improvements during the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century in particular. For this explanation one must examine the "temper of the times." Improvements were in the air, novelties became exciting, experiments were granted respectability by the establishment of academies of science throughout Europe. And governments became interested in agricultural growth. In the seventeenth century, states had privileged trade and industry as the source of wealth. In the eighteenth century attention focused once more on agriculture, especially in countries (such as France) where the bulk of taxation came from the land. Stimulating agricultural investments, it was argued, would increase production, profits, rents, and taxes. Agricultural societies were established to encourage new methods, and, although they were often misguided and ineffectual (their members dismissed by practitioners as "armchair agronomists"), they represented one facet of a broad-based Enlightenment infatuation with the countryside. The philosopher Voltaire remarked on the "agromania" that had seized his contemporaries in the 1750s, with an explosion of learned treatises by political economists and plays, paintings, and poems celebrating the delights of village life. As philosophers called for happiness and liberty, demands were voiced for free trade as the panacea that would allow cereals to flow from regions of plenty to areas of dearth. Free trade in grains was briefly enacted in France in the 1760s and again in the 1770s, while other countries stuck to protectionist legislation. Political will was not enough, however. Markets had to be better integrated and communications much improved before such measures could be contemplated. There too there were visible advances. In England, especially, new canals and improved roads made food transport faster and cheaper, and similar ventures were undertaken in France—but its territory was far bigger and harder to connect. Governments encouraged drainage and land clearance with tax subsidies where private initiative failed. In England, enclosures were supported by Parliament but not in other countries. The Agricultural Revolution is thus best understood within the context of the state and the ambient culture. But let the last words be those of one prominent scholar:

Private property was not essential for innovation or agricultural improvement but it certainly assisted it. Innovation took place on both large and small farms, although the heavy capital investment involved in land reclamation and enclosure required farmers or landlords of substance to carry it out. The key to the relationship between institutional change and farming practice lay more with commercialization and the market than with the social relations of production. The integration of local markets and a new willingness of farmers to exploit commercial opportunities provided the impetus for innovation and enterprise which led to the agricultural revolution. (Overton, p. 207)

See alsoIndustrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second; Landed Elites; Peasants.


Allen, Robert C. "Agriculture during the Industrial Revolution, 1700–1850." In The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Vol. 1: Industrialisation, 1700–1860, edited by Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson, 96–116. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Chorley, G. P. H. "The Agricultural Revolution in Northern Europe, 1750–1880: Nitrogen, Legumes, and Crop Productivity." Economic History Review, 2nd series, 34, no. 1 (1981): 71–93.

Clark, Gregory. "The Economics of Exhaustion, the Postan Thesis, and the Agricultural Revolution." Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (1992): 61–84.

de Vries, Jan, and Ad van der Woude. The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Hoffman, Philip T. Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450–1815. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Milward, Alan S., and S. B. Saul. The Economic Development of Continental Europe, 1780–1870. London, 1973.

Moriceau, Jean-Marc. Terres mouvantes: Les campagnes françaises du féodalisme à la mondialisation, 1150–1850. Paris, 2002.

Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ed. Germany: A New Social and Economic History. Vol. 2: 1630–1800. London, 1996.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500–1850. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Scott, Tom, ed. The Peasantries of Europe from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. London, 1998.

Turner, Michael. "English Open Fields and Enclosures: Retardation or Productivity Improvements." Journal of Economic History 46, no. 3 (1986): 669–692.

Vardi, Liana. The Land and the Loom: Peasants and Profit in Northern France, 1680–1800. Durham, N.C., 1993.

Wrigley, E. A. Poverty, Progress, and Population. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Liana Vardi

Agricultural Revolution

views updated May 11 2018

Agricultural revolution

The development of agriculture has been a fundamental part of the march of civilization. It is an ongoing challenge, for as long as population growth continues, mankind will need to improve agricultural production.

The agricultural revolution is actually a series of four major advances, closely linked with other key historical periods. The first, the Neolithic or New Stone Age, marks the beginning of sedentary (settled) farming. Much of this history is lost in antiquity, dating back perhaps 10,000 years or more. Still, humans owe an enormous debt to those early pioneers who so painstakingly nourished the best of each year's crop. Archaeologists have found corn cobs a mere 2 in (5.1 cm) long, so different from today's giant ears.

The second major advance came as a result of Christopher Columbus' voyages to the New World. Isolation had fostered the development of two completely independent agricultural systems in the New and Old Worlds. A short list of interchanged crops and animals clearly illustrates the global magnitude of this event; furthermore, the current population explosion began its upswing during this period. From the New World came maize, beans, the "Irish" potato, squash, peanuts, tomatoes, and tobacco . From the Old World came wheat, rice, coffee, cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Maize is now a staple food in Africa. Several Indian tribes in America adopted new lifestyles, notably the Navajo as sheepherders, and the Cheyenne as nomads using the horse to hunt buffalo.

The Industrial Revolution both contributed to and was nourished by agriculture. The greatest agricultural advances came in transportation , where first canals, then railroads and steamships made possible the shipment of food from areas of surplus. This in turn allowed more specialization and productivity, but most importantly, it reduced the threat of starvation. The steamship ultimately brought refrigerated meat to Europe from distant Argentina and Australia . Without these massive increases in food shipments the exploding populations and greatly increased demand for labor by newly emerging industries could not have been sustained.

In turn the Industrial Revolution introduced major advances in farm technology, such as the cotton gin, mechanical reaper, improved plows, and, in this century, tractors and trucks. These advances enabled fewer and fewer farmers to feed larger and larger populations, freeing workers to fill demands for factory labor and the growing service industries.

Finally, agriculture has fully participated in the scientific advances of the twentieth century. Key developments include hybrid corn, the high responders in tropical lands, described as the "Green Revolution," and current genetic research. Agriculture has benefited enormously from scientific advances in biology, and the future here is bright for applied research, especially involving genetics. Great potential exists for the development of crop strains with greatly improved dietary characteristics, such as higher protein or reduced fat.

Growing populations, made possible by these food surpluses, have forced agricultural expansion onto less and less desirable lands. Because agriculture radically simplifies ecosystems and greatly amplifies soil erosion , many areas such as the Mediterranean Basin and tropical forest lands have suffered severe degradation.

Major developments in civilization are directly linked to the agricultural revolution. A sedentary lifestyle, essential to technological development, was both mandated and made possible by farming. Urbanization flourished, which encouraged specialization and division of labor. Large populations provided the energy for massive projects, such as the Egyptian pyramids and the colossal engineering efforts of the Romans.

The plow represented the first lever, both lifting and overturning the soil. The draft animal provided the first in a long line of nonhuman energy sources. Plant and animal selectivity are likely the first application of science and technology toward specific goals. A number of important crops bear little resemblance to the ancestors from which they were derived. Animals such as the fat-tailed sheep represent thoughtful cultural control of their lineage.

Climate dominates agriculture, second only to irrigation . Farmers are especially vulnerable to variations, such as late or early frosts, heavy rains, or drought . Rice, wheat, and maize have become the dominant crops globally because of their high caloric yield, versatility within their climate range, and their cultural status as the "staff of life." Many would not consider a meal complete without rice, bread, or tortillas. This cultural influence is so strong that even starving peoples have rejected unfamiliar food. China provides a good example of such cultural differences, with a rice culture in the south and a wheat culture (noodles) in the north.

These crops all need a wet season for germination and growth, followed by a dry season to allow spoilage-free storage. Rice was domesticated in the monsoonal lands of Southeast Asia, while wheat originated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Historically, wheat was planted in the fall, and harvested in late spring, coinciding with the cycle of wet and dry seasons in the Mediterranean region. Maize needs the heavy summer rains provided by the Mexican highland climate.

Other crops predominate in areas with less suitable climates. These include barley in semiarid lands; oats and potatoes in cool, moist lands; rye in colder climates with short growing seasons; and dry rice on hillsides and drier lands where paddy rice is impractical.

Although food production is the main emphasis in agriculture, more and more industrial applications have evolved. Cloth fibers have been a mainstay, but paper products and many chemicals now come from cultivated plants.

The agricultural revolution is also associated with some of mankind's darker moments. In the tropical and subtropical climates of the New World, slave labor was extensive. Close, unsanitary living conditions have fostered plagues of biblical proportions. And the desperate dependence on agriculture is all too vividly evident in the records of historic and contemporary famine . As a world, people are never more than one harvest away from global starvation, a fact amplified by the growing understanding of cosmic catastrophes.

Some argue that the agricultural revolution masks the growing hazards of an overpopulated, increasingly contaminated earth. Since the agricultural revolution has been so productive it has more than compensated for the population explosion of the last two centuries. Some appropriately labeled "cornucopians" believe there is yet much potential for increased food production, especially through scientific agriculture and genetic engineering . There is much room for optimism, and also for a sobering assessment of the environmental costs of agricultural progress. We must continually strive for answers to the challenges associated with the agricultural revolution.

[Nathan H. Meleen ]



Anderson, E. "Man as a Maker of New Plants and New Plant Communities." In Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, edited by W. L. Thomas Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Doyle, J. Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics, and the Fate of the World's Food Supply. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Gliessman, S. R., ed. Agroecology: Researching the Ecological Basis for Sustainable Agriculture. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990.

Jackson, R. H., and L. E. Hudman. Cultural Geography: People, Places, and Environment. St. Paul, MN: West, 1990.

Narr, K. J. "Early Food-Producing Populations." In Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, edited by W. L. Thomas, Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Simpson, L. B. "The Tyrant: Maize." In The Cultural Landscape, edited by C. Salter. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1971.


Crosson, P. R., and N. J. Rosenberg. "Strategies for Agriculture." Scientific American 261 (September 1989): 12832+.

agricultural revolution

views updated May 23 2018

agricultural revolution. This was traditionally regarded as a movement which took place simultaneously with the industrial revolution, and involved the invention and introduction of new crop rotations in which roots and artificial crops were cultivated, and which involved also improvements in livestock breeding, and the reorganization of the land as a result of parliamentary enclosure. Taken together, these changes were held to have raised the output and productivity of land in such a way that the population was fed (with some help from imports) without resort to massive labour inputs which would have slowed down the industrial revolution by restricting the flow of labour from the countryside to the town. Consequently agricultural productivity and labour productivity must both have risen; indeed, the twin achievements of 18th- and 19th-cent. agriculture are seen as the ability to match population growth with rising agricultural production, and structural economic change with major gains in labour productivity.

Without much doubt the end results deduced by this argument are correct. Food supply did more or less keep pace with population and urbanization, although there was some slack in demand c.1750 and a shortfall by 1815 of about 5 per cent, which was largely met by importing grain from Ireland. By 1850 an estimated 6.5 million extra mouths were being fed from home production compared with 1750. However, questions have been raised about the nature, and particularly the timing, of the agricultural revolution. Originally it was believed to have taken place alongside, and to have been a necessary concomitant to, the industrial revolution. Recent research has raised questions about this linkage. Although there is general agreement that English agriculture underwent a fundamental technological transformation between the mid-16th and the mid-19th cents. which had a decisive impact on ‘productivity’ in terms of grain yields per acre, the timing and mechanics of this transformation remain in question.

Modern understanding of the agricultural revolution sees it loosely as a three-stage, overlapping, process. The first phase, completed by c.1750–70, saw two developments: first, the introduction of new crops, particularly root crops such as turnips and swedes, and legumes such as clover, trefoil, and lucerne, which could be grown in the fields between grain crops; and second, a considerable rise in the productivity of labour. As a result of these changes less land needed to be left fallow in order to restore its fertility, additional animal feedstuffs were grown allowing farmers to keep more cattle, and greater quantities (and quality) of manure became available. Farmers acted empirically because the scientific principles behind this process of fixing the nitrogen in the soil were not understood until well into the 19th cent., but from early beginnings in Norfolk the new crops were gradually adopted across the country. At the same time, rising labour productivity ensured that the new farming was not a drain on industrial production.

During the second phase of the agricultural revolution, lasting from around 1750 to 1830, demand increased rapidly. In this period the slack in the agricultural economy which had been partly taken up by grain exports disappeared and by the early 19th cent. an import balance existed despite a considerable growth in output. Few new crops were introduced in this period, but the reorganization of the land through enclosure (first by agreement and then by parliamentary means), and the gradual growth of larger farms, with their savings on capital inputs and their supposed higher quality of husbandry, brought a slow rise in productivity, and a growing trend towards regional specialization. Norfolk farmers had pioneered the cultivation of clover in England, but it was only after 1740 that the principal benefits of the new crop were felt and yields began to rise rapidly. The pressure on agricultural resources during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793–1815) led to additional land being brought (temporarily) into cultivation but also to higher prices as farm produce occasionally failed to keep pace with demand, and higher rents.

The third phase, beginning in about 1830, and sometimes called the second agricultural revolution, saw for the first time farmers using substantial inputs purchased off their farms, in the form of new fertilizers for their land and artificial feedstuffs for their animals. Together with the introduction of improved methods of drainage, of particular importance for the heavier claylands, the results were seen in the era of high farming—a phrase used of more or less any progressive practices—between the 1840s and 1870s, which soon gave way to a severe and prolonged agricultural depression.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the agricultural revolution was the absence of real technological advances. Although steam-powered machines were introduced for various processes in the agricultural cycle, the availability of labour, especially in the corn-growing areas of southern and eastern England, seems to have slowed down the shift from labour to machinery, and it was not until the flight from the land during the late 19th-cent. depression that farmers began actively to introduce machinery.

In Scotland the agricultural revolution took a rather different form. Although, as in England, there has been a tendency to view it as a long-term change, it is now thought that, at least in the Lowlands, this underplays the transformation which occurred in the second half of the 18th cent. A rapid move towards single tenancies and production for the market was partly stimulated by the pace of population growth, and particularly of urbanization (notably Glasgow and Edinburgh) in the second half of the 18th cent., although Scottish industrialization prior to 1815 was partly at least a rural phenomenon, often via planned new settlements.

The result, in the second half of the 18th cent., was seen in the adoption of new technologies and crops, a shift to long leases with improving clauses written in, and higher productivity. Many of the existing farmers successfully adapted to the new demands upon them, so that there was no Lowland equivalent of the Highland clearances. In the long run the new agriculture enabled more food to be produced at lower cost and labour productivity rose as a part of this process. Overall the result was a radical departure from the patterns of the past in the last quarter of the 18th cent., not simply measured in terms of physical enclosure, but also in the more effective use of land involving liming, sown grasses, and the organization of labour. It was a structural change, and not simply a perpetuation and intensification of existing trends, since it produced a dramatic increase in crop yields, allowing Scottish cultivators to catch up on English levels of output in the space of a few decades, and resulted in a visible alteration of the rural social system in an equally short time.

John Beckett


Beckett, J. V. , The Agricultural Revolution (Oxford, 1990);
Kerridge, E. , The Agricultural Revolution (1967);
Mingay, G. E. , The Agricultural Revolution: Changes in Agriculture 1650–1880 (1977).

Agricultural Revolution

views updated Jun 27 2018

Agricultural Revolution Series of changes in farming practice in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The main changes comprised crop rotation, new machinery, increased capital investment, scientific breeding, land reclamation and enclosure of common lands. Originating in Britain, these advances led to greatly increased agricultural productivity in Europe.

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Agricultural revolution